Richard Godwin

Richard Godwin Enjoys Four First Novels

  • Steven Hall, 
  • Nell Freudenberger, 
  • Tahmima Anam, 
  • Catherine O'Flynn

There is something uniquely unsettling about Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, which caused a small sensation at last year’s London Book Fair. Occasionally it is the psycho-linguistic plot, in which the amnesiac protagonist, The Second Eric Sanderson, is pursued by a conceptual shark which feeds on human memory and frequently jumps out of the text in pictorial form, a menacing calligram with ‘o’s for eyes and ‘v’s for teeth. More often, it is the disquieting feeling that a promising young author has been allowed to indulge his pretensions.

For all Hall nods to heroes like Auster, Borges and the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, the novel attains roughly the level of profundity of an episode of Doctor Who. Indeed, the gadgetry and mid-budget British locations only reinforce the comparison, as Sanderson and his pert sidekick Scout eat sandwiches and dodge schools of linguistic fish.

More’s the pity, as Hall is a sensitive observer of physical sensation: take his description of ice cubes in vodka, the run-off water of the lozenges of ice curling into the thick spirit like the ‘colour spirals of oil in water’, or the ‘sad rolling and dispersing of the galaxy’. Perhaps if he located more of the action in this plane, he would better justify the hype.

After such ostentatious trickery, Nell Freudenberger’s The Dissident refreshes like a plunge into a clear blue pool on a warm, dewy Californian morning. Freudenberger gets all the subtle, unflashy bits of the novelist’s craft just right in her tale of a Chinese performance artist who comes to stay with an affluent LA family. In the bosom of Cece Travers’s troubled brood, the enigmatic Yuan Zhao (‘Mr Jow’) recalls his edgy life in Beijing’s radical art community and takes a job teaching art in an exclusive girls’ school. Meanwhile, Cece frets over her criminal son Max, her distant husband Gordon, and Gordon’s charming, sketchy brother Phil, with whom she had an unmentionable affair ten years previously and who is now back in LA to make a film.

Freudenberger has a talent for setting vivid scenes with a single stage direction, painting the interior life of her characters with two or three deft brushstrokes. Cece and Gordon’s post-prandial exchange is typical of her discreet knack for humane, humorous exposition:

‘I think you were right’, she told her husband one evening after dinner, when they were cleaning up the kitchen.

‘About the garage door openers? I’m glad, because these new ones won’t run out of batteries until the year 2020’.

‘About Phil’, Cece said.

Their marriage in a nutshell. Ultimately, there are no easy answers or get-outs; we leave Freudenberger’s characters almost as confused as when we first met them. That this human confusion (cross-cultures, cross-identities, cross-hearts) is such a pleasure to recognise is one of the great achievements of a brilliant novel it’s hard to believe is a debut.

In A Golden Age , Bangladeshi author Tahmima Anam explores her country’s war of independence in 1971, when East Pakistan, as it was then defined following the Indian Partition, fought free of West Pakistan which ran its 1,500-miles-distant other half like a colonial master. As Rehana Haque, the novel’s widowed heroine, reflects, ‘what sense did it make to have a country in two halves, poised on each side of India like a pair of horns?’

The novel, written in that gossipy subcontinental lyric style popularised by Arundhati Roy and Monica Ali, opens in a panic: ‘Dear husband, I lost our children today.’ It is 1959 and Rehana has been judged emotionally unfit to care for Sohail and Maya after the death of her husband. Twelve years later, as she throws a biryani party to mark the anniversary of their homecoming, she prepares to lose them again. East Pakistan is poised for war. Maya has grown into a fiery young communist; dashing, soulful, patriotic Sohail is a soldier of the most heartbreaking regiment.

A Golden Age compellingly twists the personal and the historical, humming with handed-down wisdom (Anam’s father edits the Daily Star in Dhaka, her grandfather was a political satirist, while Rehana is based on her grandmother). The doomed Bengali landscape is beautifully conjured: ‘the swimming mud of the delta; the translucent, bony river fish; the shocking green palette of the paddy and the open, aching blue of the sky over flat land’. A pity that, at times, it all gets a bit wet.

On to less exotic battlegrounds: Catherine O’Flynn’s drizzly despatch, What Was Lost, is a local book from a local press, proudly co-produced by Birmingham City Council. Taking place, for the most part, in a Brummie shopping centre, it makes up for lack of what we might call sophistication with something rarer.

In 1984, in a sad, simple England of fish fingers, dads and the Beano, cub detective Kate Meaney prowls the Green Oak complex on the lookout for clues. Amid the ‘fancy goods stores, cheap chemists, fake perfume sellers, stinking butchers, flammable clothes vendors’, she disappears. Twenty years later, she appears to bereaved security guard Kurt and frustrated music shop clerk Lisa on the CCTV.

O’Flynn’s enthusiasm and deft plotting triumph over her relative rawness; the sophisticated reader is advised to gamely follow the signposts all the way up to her punch lines and, once there, to laugh indulgently. The reward is a perky, involving mystery, a minor Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which ultimately casts a chilly spell; O’Flynn is just the colleague you’d want to be stuck with in a dead-end job.

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